Nearly 1,500 died of illicit overdoses last year in B.C.: coroner

VICTORIA — More people fatally overdosed in British Columbia last year compared with 2017 despite efforts to combat the province’s public health emergency, the coroner says.

Illicit overdose deaths increased to 1,489 in 2018, slightly higher than the 1,486 deaths recorded in 2017, the BC Coroners Service said Thursday. But it said last year’s total is likely to go higher as death investigations conclude.

Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said the province must be ready to do things differently to save lives, adding that the drug supply is unpredictable and the opioid fentanyl was detected in 86 per cent of the overdose deaths.

“Substance use disorder is a health issue and forcing those attempting to manage their health issue to buy unpredictable and often toxic substances from unscrupulous profit-motivated traffickers is unacceptable,” she told a news conference.

Fentanyl is a highly potent and addictive opioid that is estimated to be up to 100 times stronger than morphine. It is commonly mixed into opioids sold on the street, meaning users don’t know the potency of the drugs they take.

Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy acknowledged the overdose crisis is continuing to take a toll on families throughout B.C. despite the province using “every available tool” to deal with it.

“By the end of this day, four people will die from an overdose in British Columbia,” she said in a news release. “Most of these people will die alone, with no one beside them, no one to call for help.”

The provincial health officer declared a public health emergency almost three years ago in B.C. as the number of drug overdoses and deaths rose.

The figures for 2018 show middle-aged men are over-represented in the death toll, with 80 per cent of the suspected fatalities involving males. People aged 30 to 59 accounted for 71 per cent of the deaths.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said people who use drugs need treatment options, rather than sending them to the criminal justice system.

She said people at risk of overdose should also have fewer barriers to a regulated supply of opioids.

“If we’re going to turn the corner on this complex crisis, we need to find the ways to provide safer alternatives to the unregulated and highly toxic drug supply and to end the stigma associated with criminalization of people who use drugs,” she said.

Dr. Evan Wood, executive director with the BC Centre on Substance Use, said there’s an urgent need to end the harms caused by prohibition.

“Its incumbent for all of us to keep the pressure on and not get complacent,” he said at a news conference. “Fentanyl, unfortunately, is something that’s not going away.”

Leslie McBain, whose son died of a drug overdose five years ago, agreed that a stronger response is needed.

“Work has been done, but the numbers, almost 1,500 people dying last year, is not good.”

A task force involving mayors from 13 cities including Vancouver pushed in 2017 for prescription heroin to be made available to people who have not responded to other forms of intervention. Vancouver has the only clinic in Canada providing prescription heroin but it accepts a limited number of patients.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said in December that creating a safer opioid supply was being reviewed and discussed with provinces and territories.

Officials in cities including Vancouver and Toronto have also called for decriminalization as the number of overdose deaths increases across the country.

Canadian health-care experts have encouraged Ottawa to adopt Portugal’s approach to drug policy, which decriminalizes limited amounts of drugs for personal use, while offering education and social supports.

Data from a federal task force on opioid deaths said nearly 4,000 Canadians died as a result of overdoses in 2017, a 34 per cent increase from the previous year.